Archival Boot Camp at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library

Archival Boot Camp at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library
by Mariea Daniell Whittington


Nestled in Collegeville, Minnesota, and flanked by lakes, sits one of the oldest Benedictine monasteries in the United States. Founded 158 years ago, this abbey grew from only housing monks, to establishing an institution for higher education known as St. John’s University. The campus is also the location of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, known as HMML, and it is both a museum and manuscript library. Within its walls contains a repository for manuscripts, artwork, and sculptures from the 1500s, and The St. John’s Bible, which is proudly displayed year round. For those of you that do not know, The Saint John’s Bible, which is the first handwritten and illuminated Bible to be done since the printing press, it has also been viewed by former Pope Benedict XVI; and he was given one of the only two copies in existence.

HMML realizes the dire importance of preserving fragile documents for the next generation, and this is a main goal of the organization. Since the 1960s, they have gone all over the world to protect these fragile artifacts. Countries such as Sweden, Ethiopia, Germany, Malta, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey have benefitted from their digital preservation techniques. In addition, they make sure to teach the archivists or librarians in those countries the proper way to preserve artifacts. This has netted over 90,000 manuscripts in HMML’s archives from all over the world!

When I was invited to go to HMML for an “Archival Boot Camp,” naturally I imagined running drills while holding a thousand year old manuscript in my hands; but what occurred was much more enjoyable. For a week, each day had a theme; and we would learn techniques and skills that would be needed for historians, as well as library and information science majors while they were in the archives. Lessons such as learning how to properly hold delicate materials and how to preserve items digitally were learned in tandem with perusing manuscripts, codices, and microfilm pertaining to our respective theses. We also were shown how different animal skins were used to make a writable page; and in some manuscripts, the hair follicles were still present! Since we were all medievalists, we also were given the opportunity brush up on our Latin, which helped us decipher and translate many of the manuscripts that the staff brought out for display. I had a Bible that was translated in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. The end of the week concluded a symposium that included presentations from all of us to the campus community.

Our group being from Southern California, and only getting to experience snow when we feel like it (i.e. purposefully making a trip up to the mountains), we were in awe of how beautiful the campus was as the snow silently descended over St. John’s. While walking around, we would spot monks here and there as they would go about their daily tasks, one of which is baking many loaves of St. John’s bread. It is delicious! They even have the loaves in the university’s cafeteria and are available for purchase in the Great Hall. The group was also given a tour of St. John’s Abbey, including its Reliquary, where they kept all their religious relics. This room contains many artifacts pertaining to Catholicism, such as a splinter from the True Cross and bones of saints.

What I enjoyed about this trip was that I experienced and learned at the same time. As someone who enjoys both history and libraries, being in an environment that was conducive to this type of learning was extremely satisfying. The staff there is passionate about history, books, and preservation; and they encourage those who come to expand their skill set when dealing with libraries and facets related to them. And now you too can have the opportunity to go there and learn! Bi-yearly, HMML offers the Heckman Stipend to students and researchers to come to their campus and use their records. Deadlines are April 15 and November 15 of each year. They also encourage student groups to come and get their “hands dirty” at HMML, while staying at St. John’s. And I assure you, it will be a trip you won’t forget!

For more information on the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library’s page on fellowships, stipends, and internships.




Mariea Daniell Whittington, M.A., is a first year LIS student at San Jose State University, who hopes to graduate in Fall 2014. Her first academic love is history, and she hopes to use it with her LIS degree to work at either a gaming company or a museum. Currently, she is vice chair of ASIS&T, a VCARA team member, and she is working with a group of colleagues in the execution of a World War I museum exhibit at a university. In her spare time, she loves baking, cooking, crafting, and playing video games. Feel free to contact her via email.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Patricia Duncan

    I enjoyed reading Mariea’s article on her Archival Boot camp. It sounds like a bucket list activity. Congratulations on your opportunity! I just finished my first semester in the MLIS program at San Jose State. I’m looking forward to opportunities like these!

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